It can feel like your whole world changes when your pet dies.
Your habits and routines can change drastically and you may be reminded of your pet’s death many times throughout the day – in many different ways.
Perhaps you even feel a sense of shock or surprise at how deeply the death of your pet is affecting you.
Loss reminders can hit like waves, sometimes catching us guard and taking our breath away.
Maybe you have noticed some common pet loss reminders like no longer being greeted by your pet when you come home or an absence of your usual routines like feeding or walking your pet.
Your home itself might feel different without your pet, and these silent empty spaces can be painful loss reminders.
Another loss reminder may be seeing your pet’s toys or other belonging unused. What you decide to do with your pet’s water bowl, food dish, or other items is up to you and it may take some time to make those decisions. And while you are figuring that out, those items can be loss reminders.
If your pet was a snuggler who slept near you at night, you may find that bedtime is a loss reminder. It may be hard to fall asleep without the weight of your pet at the foot of the bed.
You may also find that activities you used to enjoy with your pet (i.e. taking a walk or going to the dog park) become loss reminders too. This may change your relationships with neighbors, friends, family members, or others who are used to interacting with you and your pet in certain ways.
And you may also find that seeing other people with their pets (i.e. walking their dog, posting pictures of their cat on social media, or even a pet food commercial) can be a loss reminder.
In the beginning of your pet bereavement experience, it may feel like loss reminders are sneaking up on you all throughout the day.
The Process of Grieving a Pet’s Death
Grieving is a process and our brains, bodies and hearts will take time to adjust to the “new normal” after a pet dies.
Often, loss reminders hit us hardest in the early days and weeks of grief, so it’s important to be gentle with yourself.
It will take time to fully believe and understand that your pet has died – and that’s okay. There will likely be an adjustment process of feeling the sadness, adapting to the change, and deciding how to carry your memories of your pet forward.
This all takes time and energy. Grieving takes time and energy. So, self-kindness and gentleness are important survival skills.
Many experts say that grief is the other side of love.
Taking this perspective, we can understand that we are grieving a pet’s death because we truly loved them (and still do love them).
Since we know that our pets’ lifespans are usually much shorter than our human lifespans, it takes great courage to open our hearts and love an animal.
It’s almost guaranteed that we will have to grieve the death of a pet – and we do so because we have loved them.
Naming the Grief
Two types of grief that can affect us when a pet is terminally ill or has died are anticipatory grief and disenfranchised grief.
Anticipatory grief is just what it sounds like – grief in anticipation of our pet’s death.
If we are in a caregiving role with a terminally ill pet, we are usually aware that their death is coming, and we often start to grieve ahead of time.
Anticipatory grief can also happen when we have a healthy pet that is starting to show signs of age.
As we realize that our pet is aging and getting closer to the end of their lifespan, we may start to experience some anticipatory grief.
Disenfranchised grief is another type of grief than can happen with pet bereavement.
Disenfranchised grief is any type of hidden grief. It is grief that feels shameful or “not allowed”.
When a person does not feel entitled to grieve their loss, as if they don’t deserve to mourn publicly, we call it disenfranchised grief.
With pet loss, this happens because our society does not widely recognize pet bereavement for the depth of sorrow it can bring.
Sadly, our culture does not widely validate pets as “irreplaceable”.
This means that bereaved pet owners may not feel honored by society at large when they are grieving.
Comments from others such as “it was just a dog” or “it was just a cat” or “you can get another pet” can cause a bereaved pet owner to feel disenfranchised.
Understanding Disenfranchised Pet Grief
Three ways we can understand disenfranchised pet grief include cultural norms, stigma and shame.
Our society does not always honor the human-animal bond.
In fact, there is a prevalent cultural idea that pets are replaceable and thus not “grievable”.
These cultural norms against openly grieving a pet can create a stigma. When a bereaved pet owner fears being stigmatized, they may hide their pain and keep it inside.
Research has shown that many grieving pet owners are invalidated by other people when they talk about the loss of their companion animal, and this can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Another part of pet bereavement that can be difficult to find support for, and that can trouble pet owners, is uncertainty around whether they made the right end-of-ife decisions for their pet.
Pet bereavement is unique in that many pet owners have to make decisions about euthanasia and ending their pet’s suffering.
It’s easy to second guess your own decisions or worry that you made a mistake.
In cases where an animal died as a result of getting lost or being in an accident, bereaved pet owners can also have difficult feelings, including worrying that they were responsible for their pet’s death.
It can be difficult to talk openly about these feelings and some bereaved pet owners feel very alone.
The result of feeling alone and stigmatized can be shame. If a bereaved pet owner starts to feel ashamed, they may hide their pain or stop trying to find support.
Lack of support can make it much harder to heal, so it’s very important to understand that while pet loss is often disenfranchised in society, there are people and organizations that understand pet loss and can offer real support.
Later in this article, I’ll share some support resources with you.
What Research Says About Pet Loss Grief
It can help normalize our experience of pet loss grief when we understand how common deep feelings of sorrow can be. In fact, several studies have validated the depth of grief that can occur when a pet dies.
A 1994 study by two researchers named Gerwolls and Labott compared the experience of pet loss and the death of a close person.
2 weeks after either type of loss, the grief scores of both groups were similar. In other words, bereaved pet owners had grief scores that were similar to the people who were grieving a human death.
This was still found to be true 8 weeks after the losses happened.
In 2003, two researchers named Wrobel and Dye investigated the length of time that pet loss grief lasts, and found that 6 months after the death of a pet, many bereaved pet owners were still experiencing grief symptoms.
They also found that one year after a pet’s death, 1/5 of the bereaved pet owners were still having symptoms of grief.
Of course, everyone is different, and grief can be unpredictable.
But hopefully it is affirming and helpful to hear about this research, so you can know that it is common to experience profound grief symptoms.
You and your pet had completely unique experiences, routines, habits and favorite things that were part of your special bond.
The story of how your pet came to you and what your life with them was like is unlike any other. And, your experience of their death is very individual too.
Three different ways to seek support for pet bereavement can include support groups (either online or in-person), phone support such as special pet bereavement support lines, and seeking counseling for one-on-one support.
To find local pet loss support groups (or online support groups) you are encouraged to ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
When it comes to seeking phone support, there are several options.
Recognizing the need for pet loss support, several veterinary colleges and organizations have actually created pet loss support hotlines, to provide safe places for grieving pet owners to seek a listening ear.
Please note that these are not mental health hotlines but are typically support lines staffed by trained pet loss volunteers or veterinary students.
The Lap of Love Pet Loss and Bereavement Resource Line (855-352-5683) is an outreach of the Lap of Love network of veterinary hospice organizations. According to their website, the support line is available Monday through Friday from 10 am to 9 pm EST.
The Pet Loss Support Helpline from Cornell University (607-218-7457) is staffed by volunteer veterinary students who were trained by a grief counselor. According to their website, the support line is available on Tuesday evenings from 6-9 pm EST.
Finally, the Tufts University Pet Loss Support Helpline (508-839-7966) is staffed by volunteer veterinary students and according to their website, is available Monday through Friday from 6-9 pm EST.
There may be additional phone support resources available and you are encouraged to consult with your local veterinarian about phone support resources.
If you are experiencing profound pet loss grief symptoms – including anxiety or depression symptoms -it may be helpful to seek support from a counselor.
Here at Modern Era Counseling, we provide grief counseling to North Carolina residents and would be honored to work with you. Click here to get started now.
Please note that if you are experiencing severe distress or having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.